Next to Gov. Jennifer Granholm, hes Michigans highest-ranking elected official. Hes been a fixture in Michigan politics since the mid- 1980s. Republicans and Democrats respect him as an honest broker and advocate for strong public policy.

So why are so many Democrats biting their fingernails about Lt. Gov. John Cherry Jr. being their gubernatorial nominee in 2010? Especially since Cherry hasnt even announced yet.

And if theres such angst over Cherry not being able to beat a Republican-to-be-named-later, is there a realistic alternative?

To anyone but a Lansing insider, these questions sound weird. Its September 2009. Michigan isnt going to pick a Granholms successor for 14 months. How can anyone seriously be paying attention to this?

Its because anyone seriously interested in being Michigans 48th governor started laying the groundwork around Valentines Day, if not earlier. It takes time to raise money, build support, craft a plan, practice messaging and cobble together a campaign staff for a statewide race.

At this point, "the L.G." is the only Democrat making headway on all of these fronts. "Whole Lot of People Supporting Cherry" puts out seemingly weekly endorsement lists from a new fleet of local officials and mid-level union groups.

But the enthusiasm among Democrats resembles a cafeteria lunch line the day meatloaf and mashed potatoes highlight the menu.

"Im in a lot of Democrat circles," said political consultant Bob Kolt. "People talk to me, and what people are saying is that theyll go to a fundraiser and John Cherry will speak and theyll say, Oh, my God. Hes our guy?"

For those who know Cherry personally, this talk is hard to hear. Find a more approachable, knowledgeable and experienced person working under the Capitol dome. Or find a follower of state government who doesnt think Cherry would make a far better governor than Granholm or any other state official, for that matter.

On top of that, hes a regular guy. He walks the treadmill at the downtown YMCA, for crying out loud.

Cherry led the state Senate Democratic caucus from 1996 to 2002, but he didnt gain any real statewide name ID until the day Jennifer Granholm tapped him to be her running mate in 2002. And here lies the pit in Cherrys gubernatorial ambitions.

Hes still seen as "her man."

Now, as state government braces for another shutdown due to collapsing state revenue, Cherry is stuck taking another one for the team — getting blasted by political adversaries as being part of the "Granholm-Cherry" administration without being the one calling the shots.

Unlike Granholm, Cherry doesnt have the public charisma and camera-ready presence to make everything sound OK on the evening news and the radio talk shows.

"From a Republican perspective, we would love John Cherry to be the Democratic nominee," said Denise DeCook, a Republican political consultant with the Marketing Resource group.

Who Is John Cherry?

Born May 5, 1951, to John Sr. and Margaret Cherry in the small town of Montrose in Genesee County, Cherry was the first of four children.

John Sr. installed corporate tele phone lines for the local telephone company. Margaret was a stay-athome mom until the kids got a little older. Then she worked at the countys animal control department.

In high school, John Jr. rounded up his younger sister, Deb, and about eight of their buddies and created a student political action group. The teenagers interviewed political candidates. They endorsed their favorites and then knocked doors for their endorsees.

"Even though our candidates didnt always win their election, they won Montrose Township," Deb Cherry beamed. "Every single one of them."

Among those ultimately benefiting from the student action was John Sr., who ran and won township supervisor.

John Jr., a University of Michigan graduate, ended up working for then state Sen. Gary Corbin of Clio. He also served as the political director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

The year 1982 was pivotal for John Jr. Redistricting created a favorable House district for John, but he was torn between running for it and joining the priesthood for the Episcopal Church.

Either way he went, he was well suited for the task, said Deb Cherry, now a state senator.

"Hes always been a person people could talk to," she said. "He understands what people need and want. Hes also able to solve problems very well. He works with people really well, and his word is good, and thats whats important."

John Jr. ran for the state House seat and won. He continued his legislative career in the state Senate, where he was elevated to the post of floor leader and then leader from 1996 to 2002.

Term limits ended his legislative career, but in his last year of office, union officials talked up labor-friendly Cherry to Democratic gubernatorial nominee Jennifer Granholm. Cherrys biggest selling point: His 20 years of state government experience dwarfed Granholms four as state attorney general. Shed need an experienced hand to deal with the Legislature.

The two were the antithesis of each other. She was the former California beauty queen with a Harvard education and a law degree. He came from blue-collar Genesee County and made his living as a public policy expert. She exuded "movie star." He was someone you felt like you could throw back beers with.

The contrast was perfect. Onto the 2002 gubernatorial ticket went John Cherry Jr.

Granholm-Cherry, linked at the hip

Since being sworn in as lieutenant governor, Granholm used her No. 2 for special assignments.

First, he helped monitor a landuse task force. Then he dived into a study of how to double the states college-educated population. His most recent charge is to shave off state government redundancies and consolidate the bureaucracys 17 departments, multiple offices and divisions.

Hes carried her water in budget discussions. He cast the politically destructive tie-breaking "yes" vote on both the income tax increase and sales tax expansion to services during the four-hour state government shutdown in 2007.

Granholm has taken heat lately for her perceived lack of leadership and her evolving positions. Through it all, Cherry has done whats been asked without a public hint of negative commentary.

Thats great, say political observers. Its got to stop, for his own sake.

Granholm-Cherry, the break to come?

A "State of the State" survey last month from Michigan State University had Granholms approval rating at 29 percent. Rasmussen Reports put her approval rating at 44 percent.

Voters either dont know John Cherry or know that hes Granholm’s wingman.

An EPIC/MRA poll from May had Cherry at 14 percent in a Democratic primary, second to the U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenows 49 percent. (Stabenow has made it clear she isn’t up for a 10 run.)

That isnt the end of Cherrys troubles, though.

In hypothetical head-to-head matchups with potential Republican opponents, Cherry is underperforming, according to EPIC/MRA Pollster Bernie Porns analysis published earlier this summer in MIRS, a capital== newsletter.

For example, Cherry leads Attorney General Mike Cox by one point, 36 to 35 percent, trails Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land (who isnt running) 35 to 34 percent, and leads U.S. Rep. Pete Hoekstra 36 to 33 percent. Its close, but with Michigan performing so well for Democrats in recent years, Porn said Cherry is 11 to 12 points behind where a Democrat should be.

Porn also wrote that Granholms current negative poll numbers are much worse than Gov. John Englers poll numbers in September 2001, when then-Lt. Gov. Dick Posthumus was putting together his gubernatorial operation. Posthumus ultimately lost in 2002, raising the concern that Granholm could be a bigger albatross around the neck of Cherry than Engler was for Posthumus.

"Comparing the challenges of 2010 with 2002, . . . our recent May survey would strongly suggest that Cherry could have an even greater challenge in keeping the office for Democrats," Porn wrote. "However, it is obviously very early and a lot can happen over the next year."

Once the 2010 budget situation settles down and Cherry actually becomes an announced gubernatorial candidate (his operation is setting up under the "exploratory" label), Cherry needs to distance himself from Granholm, said one political consultant.

The Michigan Republican Party and some of the Republican gubernatorial candidates have been publicly tying Michigans horrible economy and astronomical unemployment numbers to the "Granholm-Cherry" administration since Barack Obama beat John McCain.

"Running on the Granholm record is a recipe for defeat," the insider said. "Hes got to embrace some principles that embody change. Government reform. Antiestablishment. Whatever. Hes got to shake it up. . . . Hes cant be the Granholm guy. Hes got to break ranks and go after the Legislature. If hes the status quo, look out."

As far as political adversaries connecting him with Granholm, Cherry said in a brief interview: "Theyre going to push it, but the Republicans have their share of problems, too.

"In the end, Im my own person," Cherry added. "I think Ill be able to demonstrate that and make it clear that Im not Jennifer Granholm. Ive got my own personality. Im my own person. Ive got my own agenda and my own vision. Ill be able to communicate that during the course of a campaign."

If not Cherry, then who?

Unless your name is John Cherry, stunningly few followers of state government think youre going to be the Democrats gubernatorial nominee in 2010.

A MIRS Insiders survey earlier this spring found that 80 percent believe Cherry stands the greatest chance of winning the nomination. Of the two announced candidates, Rep. Alma Wheeler Smith received 1 percent and former Rep. John Freeman received zero.

Smith, of Washtenaw Countys Salem Township, is a 14-year veteran of the Legislature. Shes a sharp, nononsense customer whod have the kahonies to pass a balanced budget chock full of revenue enhancements tomorrow because shed believe its the right thing to do.

Her strength isnt in pulling together the posse and loading up the bank account for statewide runs. She abandoned her 2002 gubernatorial run to become David Boniors running mate until Granholm knocked out the former Macomb County congressman.

Freeman, of the Oakland County enclave of Madison Heights, was termed out of the House in 1998. Most recently, hes spent his time as the Michigan director of Health Care for America Now, an organization trying to enact national health care reform legislation.

Neither Smith nor Freeman has managed more than 1 or 2 percentage points in most polls taken on the gubernatorial race.

"Its not a question of quality, its a question of access," said one Democratic political observer. "As lieutenant governor, John Cherry can hold a fundraiser and get $500 checks. How does Alma put together the network just to get the signatures needed to get on the ballot? How does John Freeman get the legal work done for his petitions? That is not a small task. Lawyers arent free."

Michigan State University Trustee George Perles says hes running for governor, but few political observers are taking him seriously. Wayne County Executive Bob Ficano is keeping his name out there as a possibility, but most folks are writing him off as using his "unknown" status as a political bargaining chip.

The races one wild card is House Speaker Andy Dillon, D-Redford Twp. near Detroit.

His "is-he-in-or-is-he-out?" dance is keeping the Lansing political scene guessing, particularly after he burned every public employee union in town when he uncorked his health care pooling idea.

"I do think hes going to get in," said Joe DiSano of MainStreet Strategies. "Its pretty clear that his health care initiative is directly designed toward the gubernatorial campaign.

"He would capture a lot of Starbucks Democrats — those are folks not affiliated with organized labor, more affluent that the average Democratic primary voter, and I dont know if theres enough of those folks in a nonpresidential year to win this primary."

Republican strategist Denise DeCook said that by poking a stick in labors eye and working closely with the business group Detroit Renaissance, Dillon is moving to the political middle, which makes her wonder what type of information he has on Michigans electorate.

"I dont believe in coincidences in politics, and its no coincidence that he is very actively going after labor and courting Republicans. . . . I just dont know how that helps him in a primary," she said.

The other problem for Dillon is that if hes serious about waiting until after the budget mess to make a formal decision, hes going to be "hopelessly late" getting into the race, as one insider put it. Michigan is a big state to campaign in. And there are a lot of party activists a gubernatorial candidate would need to meet and, ideally, meet again.

"I find him to be genuine and honest but strategically, hes made so many mistakes," Kolt said. "I dont know how he can get Democratic support. … The Dillon message is that John Cherry cant win the general election, but Im not sure thats a winning message."

Cherry v. GOP T.B.A.

The Republican gubernatorial contest isnt nearly as clear cut.

The current field features Cox, Holland’s Hoekstra, Oakland County Sheriff Mike Bouchard, Ann Arbor businessman Rick Snyder and state Sen. Tom George of Kalamazoo.

And here in lies the hope for a Cherry-led Democratic ticket. None of the five is unbeatable, said one Democratic consultant who broke down the each potential Republican opponent this way:

• Snyder, a multi-millionaire venture capitalist who can write his own checks, is a political novice who knows painfully little about state government and comes with baggage from his time as CEO of Gateway Computers that Michigan Democratic Party Chairman Mark Brewer is sure to exploit for sending jobs overseas.

• Hoekstra isnt tied to the state budget/state government problem in any way, but hes not known well outside his home district in West Michigan and can framed as a hand-holder of former President George Bush.

• Cox comes from the right part of the state — southeast Michigan — has excellent name ID and has done well as AG, but he "has an anger management problem." Its all but certain that his quick defense of former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and the alleged Manoogian Mansion party will find its way onto a campaign ad, as will the bizarre 2005 melodrama with Geoffrey Fieger and his confessed affair (although neither seemed to hurt him in his 06 re-election efforts).

• Bouchards campaign seemingly went dark after bagging a key endorsement from Land. How it will recover will be an interesting test. Cox is gobbling up the attention and money in southeast Michigan.

• George generated some publicity after he was invited, uninvited and re-invited to a gubernatorial debate later this month on Mackinac Island, but its hard to see him making a serious run.

Everything will be all right. Right?

For all those Democrats, completely freaked about a Democratic gubernatorial nominee John Cherry, DiSano is trying to talk them off the ledge.

"The concerns are more about Lansing insiders complaining about this," he said. "Even though Granholm has not been a great governor, I dont think people are willing to blame John Cherry for the sins of Jennifer Granholm."

Or will they?

Since hes only well known among political insiders, doesnt that make him one, too? Are voters going to be looking for that in 14 months?

"John Cherry is highly connected to Jennifer Granholm. Hes got some swimming upstream to do," said DeCook.

That may be true. But, remember, shes a Republican.